In the world of animal conservation, charismatic wildlife - those loveable, huggable species like giant pandas or koalas - take centre stage. They’re the kinds of animals you see dominating news stories, books, and movies, with less-attractive species often falling by the wayside. The concept of charismatic species is tied closely to animal conservation and protection. And the public’s love and adoration for charismatic creatures plays an essential role in the success of conservation and awareness campaigns. As flagship species they become ambassadors and icons, rallying support and focusing the public’s attention (and money) on an environmental cause or conservation program.
Figure 1 A famous example of a charismatic species used as a flagship species for a conservation group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). (Source)
For many years, a societal bias for charismatics has been important for protecting and conserving rare and imperilled species. But what happens when a charismatic species, rather than requiring protection, is considered an invasive pest? And how does this affect the proper implementation of invasive species management and threat abatement?
A perfect example of a charismatic species as an invasive pest is wild horses, known as brumbies, in Australia. First introduced for farm work in 1788, there are now over 400 000 brumbies throughout the country. As an invasive this species causes erosion and damages vegetation with their hard hooves and overgrazing. They damage and foul waterholes and spread weeds through seeds carried in their dung, manes, and tails. As competitors with native species, they can force wildlife from favoured habitats and dominate food and water sources. There is a significant portion of the public, however, that see the brumby as an iconic Australian species that is ’a unique equine and epitomizes the spirit of freedom’.
Figure 2 Feral horses threaten fragile ecosystems in Kosciusko National Park. (Source)
To manage the impacts of brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park, a plan was released in 2016 to reduce the number of wild horses by 90% over a 20-year period. The cull was to be carried out using humane control methods including trapping, fertility control and ground shooting rather than aerial shooting and roping. The management plan sparked angry protests and fierce opposition, despite warnings from scientists about the impacts of brumbies in the region. Even though government scientists declared that the horse population in the region severely degrade natural waterways and threaten fragile native alpine wildlife, hundreds of people protested the cull in Sydney and support groups downplayed the adverse effects brumbies have had on the environment. Lisa Caldwell of the Snowy Mountain Horse Riding Association was reported as saying ‘You've got to remember that the national park is 6,900 square kilometres…horses are not going to have a huge impact on those wetlands’ (www.abc.net.au).
Now almost 2 years on, backlash to the draft legislation has halted any form of management and a new amended management plan is in the works. It is reported that the amended plan includes less aggressive reduction of wild horses, with culling more likely to reduce the numbers to several thousand rather than just 600. To overcome Australia’s environment laws that require a more complete removal of wild horses, a ‘brumbies bill’ is being put forward to give recognition to the horses’ ‘cultural significance’, providing them with legal protection to remain in the park.
Now consider how an uncharismatic species is treated in a similar situation. The feral pig, generally perceived as dirty, disease-ridden and hated by farmers, also roams through Kosciuszko National Park and has very similar impacts on the environment. Feral pigs degrade natural areas through rooting up soils, grasslands and forest litter as they feed on native plants. They also spread a number of diseases and predate on a host of native animals including insects, frogs, snakes and small ground-nesting birds. Unlike brumbies however, their numbers are managed within in the park with almost no opposition.
Figure 3 Feral pigs populations are controlled in Australia with minimal public opposition. (Source)
In both cases there are two species found in the same location, negatively impacting the ecosystem in a similar way. For the uncharismatic species, management plans are carried out promptly and effectively. But for the charismatic species, it seems clear that societal bias can lead to strong resistance from the public and as a result, management efforts can be delayed or watered down.
And this pattern isn’t restricted to Australia. In Canada, introduced feral cats are the No.1 killer of birds, responsible for over 100 million bird deaths per year. Even with this information available, there is no widescale control programs for managing feral cat populations. In British Columbia, an exploding European rabbit population at the University of Victoria was responsible for extensive damage to fields, lawns and mature trees. When the university tried to implement a removal program, public outcry delayed efforts and the university ended up committing to using non-lethal methods for controlling the rabbit population. Meanwhile, less cute and fluffy invasive species such as America bullfrogs in BC have active population control programs with almost no objection from the public.
Based on these examples, it is clear there is a degree of favouritism when it comes to how invasive species are perceived and subsequently managed. With an obvious bias towards charismatic species, the power of public opinion can have significant impacts on invasive species control. This in turn has the potential to result in severe ecological consequences. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the issue there is likely no single solution. The most impactful approach may be to increase the public’s awareness of the negative impacts of invasives with a focus on how these species may be damaging native wildlife. A more controversial approach may be to simply provide government scientists with greater decision-making power when it comes to wildlife management, especially for federally and state-owned lands. Adding to the complexity of the issue is how valuable are the cultural ecosystem services provided by charismatic invasives. Are the cultural benefits of invasive species as important as those provided by native species? This is an important question that should be addressed in evaluating the overall impacts caused by invasive species. Biases present in invasion biology are rarely discussed but the issues are clear. For the effective management of all invasive species, whether huggable or ugly, these biases should be recognised and carefully considered.